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Civil servants press Hamas for wages

Win support of Abbas for strike

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Thousands of angry civil servants turned up the pressure on the beleaguered Hamas government yesterday, marching to demand payment of overdue wages and winning Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's blessing for a major strike next week.

As the Palestinians' internal tensions simmered, fighting intensified between Gaza militants and Israeli troops searching for smuggling tunnels and explosives. At least eight Palestinians were killed in air strikes and gunbattles near Gaza City.

Visiting UN Secretary General Kofi Annan called for an end to the fighting in the coastal strip that has killed more than 200 Palestinians since it began two months ago. He also demanded that Israel open Gaza's crossing points.

``This must stop immediately," Annan said. ``I have made my feelings known in talks with Israeli officials. Beyond preserving life, we have to sustain life. The closure of Gaza must be lifted, the crossing points must be opened, not just to allow goods (in), but to allow Palestinian exports out as well."

The planned civil service strike -- a symbol of the growing confrontation between Abbas's Fatah Party and the Hamas government -- would plunge Gaza and the West Bank deeper into chaos. The strike threat gives Abbas greater leverage in negotiations with the Islamic militant group over a unity government.

Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, of Hamas, met for an hour in Gaza yesterday evening and discussed efforts toward a unity government, Israel's offensive in Gaza, and the Palestinian financial crisis, according to Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Hamas has been unable to pay full salaries to the 165,000 government employees -- including some 40,000 teachers and 85,000 members of the security forces -- since an international aid freeze was imposed on the Palestinian government in March when Hamas came to power.

Hamas, considered a terror group by Israel, the United States, and the European Union, has refused to accept Western conditions for restoring aid, including recognizing Israel and renouncing violence.

About 3,000 government employees marched through Ramallah yesterday to demand their salaries, and the civil servants' union that represents tens of thousands of teachers and health care workers has said it would launch an open-ended strike next week at the start of the school year.

Hamas says the strike is aimed at destabilizing the government and called on teachers to ignore it.

Meanwhile, Israeli troops killed eight Palestinians in two air strikes and gunbattles on the outskirts of Gaza City, Palestinian witnesses and hospital doctors said.

The deaths raised to 18 the number of Palestinians killed since Israeli forces began searching for tunnels and explosives in Gaza City's Shajaiyeh neighborhood Saturday night.

Most of those killed have been militants, but a 14-year-old boy was shot to death yesterday as he gathered with a group of people to watch the fighting, hospital officials said. Palestinian boys often gather to watch Israeli troops during raids in Gaza.

The army also released visual images of what it described as a tunnel dug from Shajaiyeh to the Karni crossing, the main cargo crossing between Gaza and Israel, and was to be used for an attack.

Israel has closed cargo and pedestrian crossing points in Gaza for long stretches this year following security alerts and attacks .

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